Commentary, Line Cook

Line Cook // Lena Khalaf Tuffaha + Lasagna

by Keetje Kuipers | Senior Editor


hen I was an undergraduate, Mahmoud Darwish came to give a reading at my college. I’m ashamed to say now that what I remember most from the night was not how he read his poems in Arabic, though they were beautiful. It was not that Carolyn Forché, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Edward Said joined him on stage to read his work in English translation, though they did. It was not the transcendent musical interpretations of those poems, composed and performed by Lebanese singer and oud player Marcel Kahlife, though I bought the CD that night and listened to it for years afterward. What I remember most was that Mahmoud Darwish had bodyguards, and they wore dark suits, just like the men in the movies, and they moved through the university halls that led to the auditorium with a singular intent unlike any I had ever known.

At the time, I couldn’t imagine why a poet would need a bodyguard. I was naïve in a way that I now find incomprehensible, unforgivable. Darwish was, of course, one of the most revered and beloved poets in the Arab world. As a Palestinian living in exile first in Lebanon and eventually in Israel as what the government there termed an “internal refugee” or “present-absent alien,” he was repeatedly imprisoned for reading his poetry. The author of nearly forty books of poetry and prose, he also wrote the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence, and, until his death in 2008, he was considered the Palestinian national poet.

I like to think that I now understand the power of words a bit better. I certainly have a better understanding of their singular intent and purpose. The bodyguards were there to protect Darwish from a potential act of hatred and terror. But they were also there to allow a small, limited person like myself to experience a kind of poetic power that is dangerous because it believes, rightly, that within the voice dwells humanity for the individual, and when that singular voice meets the air it makes a claim for the humanity of all. As Darwish writes in his arresting poem “In Jerusalem” from his final collection, The Butterfly’s Burden:

All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured.

I was reminded of this truth while listening to the podcast The Poet Salon, which is currently the show I have on loop when I’m in the kitchen. There are many charming elements to this new-ish contribution to the world of literary podcasts, not least of all the ebullient team of talented young poets—Gabrielle Bates, Luther Hughes, and Dujie Tahat—who put these conversations together. There’s also the fact that these thoughtful hosts design a signature drink for each of their guests. But most of all I love the little bonus-part-deux to each episode where the featured poet reads a poem by someone else and then talks about it. And it was one of these gems that brought me gratefully back to the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish.

If, like me, you’ve come across The Poet Salon in the last few months and decided to start your listening journey with the most recent interviews featuring the likes of Hanif Abdurraqib and Erika Meitner, you might not know that you are missing out on something intimate and beautiful in their very first recorded episode with Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. Tuffaha is a poet and translator of Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian heritage. Her first collection, Water & Salt (Red Hen Press, 2017), won the Washington State Book Award, and she has a chapbook forthcoming from Diode next year.

Listening to her interview and her follow-up reading of Darwish’s “To Our Land” on The Poet Salon, I found Tuffaha’s discussion of the Arabic word for homeland—li-Blaad—illuminating in a way that possessed both density and interiority. She seemed to be saying that calling out to one’s home can be a political act as well as an act of love, and that translating that call can be a way of traveling across both time and space. Her own poems—multi-lingual, geographically wide-ranging, and diverse in their cultural points of reference—complicate simple notions of identity and home. They are both global and strikingly intimate, which is also how I found her conversation on The Poet Salon.

I listened and re-listened to the episode and follow-up featuring Tuffaha, and during one of these rounds I made lasagna. Now, this is no traditional lasagna, and it’s especially non-traditional if you follow the variation that chef Heidi Swanson provides at the end of the recipe when she suggests you throw in some curry powder and orange juice, which I always do. The recipe also substitutes lentils (or cannelloni beans, if you prefer) for the meat and calls for lemon zest. It ends up being a bit of a global mishmash, but it contains flavors that mean “home” to many of us, whether home-cooking happens to be a Stouffer’s frozen lasagna on a winter day in Cleveland or a curry stew simmering away on the stove in Jersey City. And as odd as the combination of flavors might sound, it is truly delicious. Because the recipe comes together quickly (and because you’ve essentially got two podcasts to listen to), there’s also time to make a spinach salad to complete the meal. Inspired by the flavors in this Moroccan dish, I usually toss fresh spinach together with a warm dressing of olive oil, preserved lemon, and olives. If I feel like it, I throw some fried, diced halloumi into the mix, too. This meal works in all seasons, warm and nourishing on a cold day but still light and fresh enough for a summer evening.

Photo: “In The Love of Oud” by Peter Zaki is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0